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SRS 2016

Artwork copyright (c) 2003 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc; review copyright (c) 2003 James Southall




Considering Alex North was an A-list composer in Hollywood during the golden age of the western, he didn't really score too many films in the genre, unlike the majority of his peers.  But most certainly the results were always brilliant whenever he did go out west - and certainly they didn't sound like the western scores written by any of his peers!  Two of them are presented on CD for the first time (officially) in this release from Masters Film Music, available via the Varese Sarabande CD Club.

North had a great love of Mexico and scored a few films in his career with Mexican influences.  His first Mexicana was Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!, by any definition one of the greatest scores of all time; and his second was The Wonderful Country, which is almost as good.  In truth the two scores share many similarities, not least in the blending of North's ultra-modernist style with beautiful, seemingly effortless pastoral melodies.  The opening cue is breathtaking, recalling the most boistrous moments of Zapata, with its incredibly intricate orchestrations and detailed percussion parts.

Apart from the brilliant opening and end credits pieces, highlights - of which, in truth, there are some in every track - include "Smuggling Guns", which introduces a most wonderful theme for harmonica which is repeated a few times later in the score - "Murder at the Fiesta", which is an absolutely trademark Alex North cue, turning what first seems like carnival source music into a cue as dramatic and tortured as they come - "Escape", which features what must be the most dramatic use of an acoustic guitar in a film score - "Capitol City", blending vintage North orchestrations with some traditional-style Mexican folk music that is truly beautiful - "The Chase", a truly thrilling piece of action music - and finally, the song-like "Brady and Helen", featuring a terrific rendition of the main romantic theme which shows North's gift for writing deft romantic material without ever resorting to the (now) clichéd approach of his friends and peers; it's beautiful, touching and deeply emotional without needed 60 strings.  But as I said before, the score really features one highlight after another - there's never a dull moment - it's without question one of the greatest western scores ever written.  The final four cues - including the unmissable "The Chase" - were apparently mistakenly left off the original LP (and subsequent bootleg CD) and so they make their premiere appearance here.

The second of the two discs that make up this album is the little-known The King and Four Queens, whose score was never previously available at all.  The movie starred Clark Gable and was directed by Raoul Walsh, a somewhat lighthearted western telling a straightforward story of a man seeking some hidden gold.  And "hidden gold" is a pretty apt description of the score as well.  Opening with a typically portentous title cue which is just as intricate as the equivalent piece in The Wonderful Country, but which is entirely different in its execution.  It's clear from the opening that this is not a film to be taken all that seriously, with the exuberant style putting a smile on your face.

Whereas The Wonderful Country is unquestionably music from south of the border, The King and Four Queens contains music that could only be from the north, typified in fact by the second and third cues, "Wagon Mound" and "Ma's Girls", the latter especially showcasing North's wonderful gift for melody.  One of the most remarkable things to me about North is how fresh so much of his music sounds even fifty years after it was written.  I can't think of a single composer from the era whose music could be used in modern-day films without seeming out of place - except, that is, for North.  A quick listen to "Sabina" just confirms this.  It's a truly gorgeous - jaw-droppingly so - piece of music, so touching and charming, with definite echoes of North's most famous piece of music, "Unchained Melody".  There are indeed several of these pieces of really beautiful music which form a first-rate score when put together.

This album is surely the best film music release of 2003 so far.  Here are two vintage scores by Alex North with decent sound (though it's mono), excellent liner notes by Michael McDonagh and, just as importantly, half a dozen pictures of Robert Mitchum looking utterly ridiculous with a stupid beard and even-more-stupid hat.  What more could you want?  Seriously, North wrote some amazing music and it's always great to hear more of it; these two scores are as different as chalk and cheese, but both show off the very best aspects of the composer.  An unmissable release for all serious film music fans.


The Wonderful Country

  1. Main Title (2:01)
  2. Riding Into Pueblo (3:48)
  3. Helen's Theme (1:24)
  4. Smuggling Guns (2:07)
  5. Across the Rio Grande (1:54)
  6. Chief Pistolero (1:14)
  7. Murder at the Fiesta (2:54)
  8. Escape (1:34)
  9. Reunion with Castro (1:10)
  10. General Marcos (1:03)
  11. Capitol City (1:34)
  12. Reunion at Fort Jefflin (4:01)
  13. End Title (album) (1:23)
  14. The Chase (3:23)
  15. Indian Fight (3:24)
  16. Brady and Helen (3:09)
  17. End Title (3:39)


The King and Four Queens

  1. Main Title (3:30)
  2. Wagon Mound (1:46)
  3. Ma's Girls (4:18)
  4. My Boy (2:47)
  5. Once Over (2:37)
  6. Sabina (2:55)
  7. R4P1a (1:22)
  8. R4P2 (:38)
  9. R5P5 / R6P1 (2:29)
  10. Ruby (3:08)
  11. Search (1:48)
  12. Square Dance (2:03)
  13. Oralie (2:26)
  14. Ruby Spurned / Oralie Spurned (2:53)
  15. Spied (1:34)
  16. Farewell (1:52)
  17. Gone (:40)
  18. End Sequence and End Title (2:43)
  19. Rosebud (3:29)
  20. Square Dance for Accordion and Guitar (1:31)